Confederate Home charity needs to repair past damage to serve the future
Charleston’s Confederate Home took shape in the ashes of the Civil War as a haven for women and children whose lives had been turned upside down.
Confederate home history
1800 Gilbert Chalmers builds a double tenement at 62 Broad St., a few years after a fire scorches the neighborhood.
1819 Chalmers’ building hosts President James Monroe during his trip to Charleston.
1834 The Carolina Hotel occupies the site, as new construction is added behind 62 Broad.
1845 The U.S. District Court moves into a former tenement at 23-25 Chalmers St.
1860 U.S. District Judge Andrew Magrath suspends federal court in Charleston, and he returns a year later to the same room as a judge for the Confederacy.
1867 Amarinthea Yates Snowden and nine other women lease the above buildings to create the home for Mothers, Widows and Daughters of Confederate Soldiers of Charleston.
1886 The great earthquake damages the home, and it receives major repairs. The Broad Street facade is redone in the Second Empire style, with a mansard roof and pressed metal dormers.
1901 The home receives a $30,000 state grant that helps expand its limited educational offerings, and its name is changed to “The Confederate Home and College.”
1923 The Confederate Home and College stops offering classes because the College of Charleston has begun admitting women (but it keeps its name).
1989 The buildings receive substantial repairs after Hurricane Hugo.
2008 The Confederate Home renovates the former federal courtroom as a space for wedding receptions and other events, which, along with studio spaces rented to artists, generates income to run the home.
The war ended almost 150 years ago, but the city still has people in need. While the home has evolved in many ways — residents no longer need to have a tie to a Confederate soldier —it continues to try to meet that need.
“This is one of Charleston’s oldest charitable institutions,” said Barbara Zimmerman, chairwoman of the board that runs the nonprofit home, “and it’s still serving the city.”
But both time and water are taking their toll here, and if left unchecked, they pose a threat to the home’s buildings and the people they serve.
A resident’s story
Alma “Sally” Montague arrived in Charleston to visit a friend at the Confederate Home two decades ago and moved in 30 days later.
She has lived here ever since and enjoys interacting with the other residents of limited means and with the artists and authors who have studios in this vast complex of 19th century buildings between Broad and Chalmers streets.
“It really is a wonderful mixture of people here,” she said.
She also enjoys the affordability — no resident pays more than $400 rent a month, utilities included —and prime location just down from City Hall. And then there’s the picturesque courtyard —one that attracts socialites and celebrities, such as Susan Sarandon’s daughter, to hold weddings and other special events there.
Montague said this is the only one of five charitable homes built for Confederate widows after the Civil War that still continues a mission of providing quality housing to those with a legitimate need.
Ultimately, that is what’s at stake as the home grapples with the kinds of problems commonly found in the city’s old buildings.
‘Less quality oriented’
Jim Wigley is well acquainted with the threats facing the Confederate Home.
The contractor has worked here off and on for several years, mostly addressing life-safety issues such as outdated fire alarm and electrical systems and a third-floor piazza rail that was both too flimsy and too low.
He has worked closely with the Confederate Home’s board, a group of 14 women who run the home.
Wigley recently led Zimmerman and two other board members on a tour of some of the most troublesome spots, beginning on the roof, which is accessed through a small room with a foul smell.
The roof, repaired after Hurricane Hugo, needs more work, as does the metal flashing, particularly around the building on Broad Street, the oldest in the complex. Many windows also need repainting.
But those repairs aren’t even as important as some electrical upgrades and other work needed for safety.
“A lot of work here was done by volunteer labor over the past 100 years. It was well intended, but less quality oriented,” Wigley said. “We’ve pulled out a mile of obsolete pipes and gas lines.”
Many units still rely on window air conditioning units and small space heaters to remain comfortable, and while they have worked in the past, they increase the chance of fire.
Safety is the goal
A few years ago, Wigley’s team restored the building’s historic courtroom off Chalmers Street, a space now leased out for special events.
But the home’s rental income from those events, artists’ studios and apartments is nowhere near enough to pay for the repairs needed today.
Board member Margaret Garrett said the board hopes to raise about $530,000 to finance the new round of work that’s needed.
While that’s more than the home’s annual budget, it is not a big number relative to other restorations in the neighborhood. The city spent more than $3 million restoring Market Hall, a similarly old building just a fraction of the home’s size.
But the goal is not to make the home all spiffy, just a safe and secure place to live. After all, part of its charm is its visible age, such as the few porcelain sinks that still can be found on the exterior walls outside some units.
Montague said the home would not be the same if it were fixed up the same as other fine homes nearby. “It wouldn’t be the same if it were all beautiful.”
With a successful fundraising campaign, Wigley and others should be able to address the home’s most critical needs.
Also, the money will go toward major repairs and upgrades to two apartments that currently cannot be rented.
Getting those units back online would allow the home to increase the number of residents it serves from 13 to 15 or 16.
And that would be a relief to those who still need the home, whose mission began in the wake of the Civil War’s devastation but still is relevant today. The challenge of providing decent, affordable housing in downtown Charleston remains, long after firsthand memories of the war have vanished.
While the Confederate Home once required its residents to have a connection to an ancestor who had fought for the South, that policy is no longer in place.
And Montague would know, despite her Southern-sounding last name.
“I’m from Vermont,” she said, “and I find a lot of humor in that.”